31 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Films 30 - 11

Here are my selections for 30-21 (simply listed in order), followed by films 20-11 (with, by-and-large, double-tweet-length commentary). I've separated this from the top ten purely for brevity: scrolling, scrolling, scrolling - especially at the time of the year when lists are ten-a-penny - can cause havoc with any self-respecting film lover/writer's digits. By-and-large, bite-sized lists in sets of ten are easier to consume. The films were all released between Jan 1st and Dec. 31st 2011, with maybe a few strays or curveballs (such as festival release with no wide-release date or DVD-premiere release and so on) thrown in. Every movie, big or small, major or minor in scale and intent, deserves a fair shot at year-end glory. This is something I've stood by year-in, year-out.

Note: I drew up my top 30 list several weeks ago, but have only now scribbled up some words to go with it. This means that, inevitably, some films I've seen since from the year, and that may have been included (Senna, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol etc), haven't been given a place even if they were entirely worthy. Also, some films may, in time, move up or down according to rewatches or personal opinion. This is always the way and unavoidable. But anyway, here they are (for the forseeable future, at least):

Films 30 - 21:

30. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
29. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
28. Bedevilled Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal (Chul-soo Jang)
27. The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman)
26. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey)
25. A Screaming Man Un homme qui crie (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
24. True Grit (JoelCoen/Ethan Coen)
23. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
22. Pina (Wim Wenders)
21. Pariah (Dee Rees)

Ten just out of shot (no order): Brighton Rock, Thor, Everything Must Go, Early One Morning, Stake Land, The Awakening, Insidious, Animal Kingdom, Win Win, Never Let Me Go.

Five TV movies I liked (no order): Marwencol, Mildred Pierce, Temple Grandin, You Don’t Know Jack and (in particular) Public Speaking.

Films 20 - 11:

20. Last Night (Massy Tadjedin)

Because: the craft of the filmmaking was top-notch (check out the credits for editing, music, cinematography) and it was duly matched by a quartet of fine performances; Knightley was career-best so far; Mendes a minor revelation. It was misjudged time and again for, as far as I could tell, merely featuring the lives of wine-drinking Manhattanites. Well, gosh! Away with you every Woody Allen and Whit Stillman movie! It's a film I feel deserves reassessment.

19. Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

Because: never has Brontë's heroine been so headstrong and captivating on screen. It's commendable for its attention to atmosphere, detail and not being shy of letting the best, key aspects of period filmmaking simply shine. Plus Wasikowska and Fassbender were so terribly, utterly moving in a downpour, so they were.

18. The Interrupters (Steve James)

Because: it was the best documentary of the year. A brilliant and compelling account of people critically and decisively striving to change things; steering others on to better paths and ways of living. It was a cinematic reply, too: filmmaking as an answer to a huge, vast problem. It has to be mentioned and commended for its aims.

17. Another Earth (Mike Cahill)

Because: films that begin in quite commonplace fashion, then turn out to be genuinely surprising, and then gradually turn into something completely heartfelt - albeit charmingly, curiously scrappy - don't always come around too often. It was made with due care and committment, with one eye on a delightfully odd concept, the other on awkward romance. I'm a sucker for a novel sci-fi genre mash.

16. Rango (Gore Verbinski)

Because: it's the best animated film that features a creature with a gleefully mischievous personality at its centre since Ratatouille. And I'm happy to see one of these any year, month, week. Also, it pushes mainstream animation into rarely explored, slightly uglier territory, whilst still retaining a pleasing and becoming charm all its own. Adventure in microcosm is still adventure - and what an adventure!

15. Terri (Azazel Jacobs)

Because: it showed that heartfelt - but never twee or overly sentimental - indie filmmaking still has the ability to be fresh, endearing. It's a skewed, truly left-of-centre take on the high school coming-of-age movie. The characters felt real, drawn from lived experience. The acting was sincerely, joyfully astute. (More on Terri here - scroll down for mini comments from the LFF.)

14. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

Because: it was like a welcome and long-overdue chat with a good friend. I was caught off-guard, having not much liked Katz's two previous films (Dance Party USA and Quiet City), but this was a massive step up and away from all the over-indulged 'mumblecore' tedium. A mystery about who we think we know - and with delightful, unaffected performances to boot.

13. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

Because: it trumps, realigns and amiably ushers gay filmmaking forward - and it looks and feels effortless in doing so. (Yes, it is universal, but it is also certified Gay Cinema - its level of success means it manages a multitude of things to a great many different types of people.) The two well-written, and entirely real, characters at the centre of this big-hearted compact-romance have hardly, if ever, been explored in this way. (More on Weekend here - mini comments, along with some thoughts on Pariah.)

12. Ballast (Lance Hammer)

Because: similarly as with several other recent films (such as, say, Another Earth, Blue Valentine and The Messenger), it heart-breakingly explored the desperate limits of personal loss and how people might look to others for sustenance and/or escape. I was fully with all three main characters every step. Their everyday troubles and dreams were entirely relatable.

11. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Because: we need expressions of absurd, Grand Guignol-like hysteria set in the world of mind-haunting ballet. It was inevitable that we'd get another Mulholland Dr., 3 Women or Persona now writ audaciously onto a mainstream marquee. It was a head-trip unlike any others in recent times and a beautiful, tense genre swill that was hard to unpick and get out of my mind. (Read my piece on Black Swan for the official 2011 Bafta brochure via this link.)

Next: Top Ten Films of the Year

30 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Male Performances

I posted my picks for female performances yesterday, so to go alongside it, as ever, here are the ten male performances of the year that I enjoyed the most. And as with the female list, there's a second-tier list of performances, 20-11, first:

20. Sam Riley Brighton Rock
19. Jean-Pierre Darroussin Early One Morning
18. Albert Brooks Drive
17. Jacob Wysocki Terri
16. Lucas Pittaway Snowtown
15. Benedict Cumberbatch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
14. Youssouf Djaoro A Screaming Man
13. Woody Harrelson The Messenger
12. Will Ferrell Everything Must Go
11. Ryan Gosling Drive / Blue Valentine / Crazy, Stupid, Love.

The Top Ten Male Performances of 2011:

Last year the calibre of the male performances was higher than this year – and I still had trouble selecting twenty, let alone a top ten (but here it is for perusal). At the ten end of the list is Cris Lankenau for his affable role in Cold Weather. I enjoyed how he casually navigated his way around the tenuous mysteries of the film: it was a natural and likeable performance. Paul Rudd stood out of the starry cast of How Do You Know. He always charms easily, but it’s a trait I never take for granted. His exasperation and amiability shone here just as much as it has elsewhere – and the rooftop scene where he frustratingly attempts to barbecue a steak was a favourite 2011 comic moment. Paul Giamatti is always solid in most films, and he was typically assured in Win Win. He can do the kind of put-upon everyman role he does in the film effortlessly, but he added an extra zippiness to complement his character’s crestfallen vibe. John C. Reilly was good in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but even better in Terri; it’s perhaps one of the best things he’s done. If the Academy wants to strike the right note in February, he should be duly nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar. He does wonders with his support role. The very same could be said of Yûsuke Iseya in 13 Assassins. In a film which contains many great physical turns, his was the cheekily ragged standout. His performance was sly, charming and oddly moving - a welcome respite from the massacres depicted over the film's duration.

Just like Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling and Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans had a handful of films out in 2011. In, respectively, Captain America: The First Avenger, Puncture and What’s Your Number? he was heroically sincere, vigorously committed and daft as a ferret and refreshingly breezy. All three were delivered with the requisite pitch-perfect levels of exuberance and skill required for these three entirely different films. He’s shown he can master a varying range of styles and genres: now let’s see more of it. Another actor due just a bit more praise, I’d say, is Matthew McConaughey, who weaves a rakish spell with his best role in years, perhaps ever, in The Lincoln Lawyer. He played it smart, savvy and with just enough of a hint of playboy noir. He was shabbily captivating. Of the two lovely performances - from Tom Cullen and Chris New - in the very becoming love story, Weekend, I was taken with Cullen’s just a bit more. It was his character, Russell’s, story, essentially, and he gave a beautifully measured and affecting turn. He should rightly go on to more great roles as soon as possible. Daniel Henshall’s role as serial killer John Bunting in Snowtown is one that I won’t forget easily. His intricately ghastly mannerisms and actions, both major and minor, were hard to shake from my mind after seeing the film, as they are now; his riveting performance is hard to shake. Depicting real, unfiltered evil as Henshall does takes serious acting chops. Top of the male acting pile, though, is Ben Foster in The Messenger. As soon as the film finished I wondered if I’d see another performance which could surpass it for sheer boldness and conviction. As an ex-U.S. Army Staff Sergeant assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification department, he was both subtly assured and deceptively volatile, depending on the circumstances within the plot. He expertly commanded every scene he was in. It’s a performance on the level of any of the great actors – but from a relatively unheralded character actor. More kudos, and more brilliant roles like this, should be directed Foster’s way.

Cris Lankenau
as Doug
in Cold Weather

Paul Rudd
as George
in How Do You Know

Paul Giamatti
as Mike Flaherty
in Win Win

Yûsuke Iseya
as Koyata
in 13 Assassins
(Jûsan-nin no shikaku)

John C. Reilly
as Mr. Fitzgerald
in Terri

Chris Evans
as Mike Weiss / Captain America/Steve Rogers / Colin Shea
in  Puncture / Captain America: The First Avenger / What’s Your Number?

Matthew McConaughey 
as Mick Haller
in The Lincoln Lawyer

Tom Cullen
as Russell
in Weekend

Daniel Henshall
as John Bunting
in Snowtown

Ben Foster
as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery
in The Messenger

Next up: Top Ten Films of 2011

29 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Female Performances

Here are the ten female performances of the last year that I enjoyed the most. But first, here are the second-tier female performances, 20-11:

20. Amy Adams The Fighter
19. Seo Yeong-hee Bedevilled
18. Keira Knightley Last Night
17. Brit Marling Another Earth
16. Melissa McCarthy Bridesmaids
15. Carey Mulligan Never Let Me Go
14. Natalie Portman Black Swan
13. Milla Jovovich Stone
12. Tilda Swinton We Need to Talk About Kevin
11. Adepero Oduye Pariah

The Top Ten Female Performances of 2011:

As with what resulted in my top ten last year, there was an influx of great acting by the women in 2011. My top ten kicks of with Vera Farmiga, always an assured talent, being sharply sarcastic and just ever-so vulnerable as a determined actress in Henry's Crime. Sarek Bayat and Samantha Morton both supported with crucial ease in their roles (in A Separation and The Messenger, respectively); Beyat was the suffering centre of the brilliant Iranian family drama, showing guarded restraint and poignancy; those qualities were also to be found in Morton's performance as a bereaved army wife in the latter film (Morton is generally excellent, whatever the role). Both actresses conveyed a great deal more in support than many actresses did with lead roles. Belén Rueda took me alongside her character every step of the way in Julia's Eyes and was never less than eerily compelling; and the freshness and vigour that Tarra Riggs - in her first film role - showed throughout Ballast was often staggering. I'd like to see her get more key roles in a range of films. As soon as Jane Eyre ended I knew that I had to reserve a spot for Mia Wasikowska on this list. I was bowled over by her moving and headstrong interpretation of the classic role.

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg were a sure-thing inclusion for their bold, immersive work in Melancholia, too. I wasn't about to include one without the other - each actress traversed their roles with total conviction; in both halves of the film, Dunst and Gainsbourg complement and corrode each other unforgettably. Yoon Jeong-hee was a definite from the first frame of Poetry. It was the role that moved me the most in 2011; she held my attention in every scene, whatever was occurring narratively, and she managed to be beautifully, subtly magnetic in her own unique way. In complete thematic contrast, Kirsten Wiig in Bridesmaids, grabbing the top spot with daft abandon, was an utter ridiculous joy to watch. True, lasting comic ability, whether largely writ or minutely detailed (Wiig's performance embodied both remarkably - compare the plane set-piece with her baking a sole cupcake), can often be tricky to balance in just the right way to convey the exact funny line or amusing gesture. Wiig, through natural talent and snappy timing, managed to surpass every other comedy actress not just this past year, but quite possibly the last five or six (or more). She deserves the highest praise indeed.

Vera Farmiga
as Julie Ivanova
in Henry's Crime

Sareh Bayat
as Razieh
in A Separation
(Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

Samantha Morton
as Olivia Pitterson
in The Messenger

Belén Rueda
as Julia Leven/Sara
in Julia's Eyes
(Los ojos de Julia)
Tarra Riggs
as Marlee
in Ballast

Mia Wasikowska 
as Jane Eyre
in Jane Eyre

Charlotte Gainsbourg
as Claire
in Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst
as Justine
in Melancholia

Yoon Jeong-hee
as Yang Mija
in Poetry

Kristen Wiig
as Annie Walker
in Bridesmaids

Next up: Male performances and Top Ten Films of 2011.

Films of the Year 2011: Worsts (or Come On Folks, You Can Do Better Than That)

With little need for an introduction (the heading says what it is), here are the ten films (plus another, back-up ten listed) which grabbed, thrilled, impressed and entertained me least this year. (As ever, all films were released in the UK between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st. Or thereabouts.)

01. For Lovers Only (Michael Polish)

For Lovers Only: an in-love couple contemplate whether to be in love on a beach or a bed.

It resembled an overlong Calvin Klein perfume ad that no one asked for. Or an extended segment of Paris je t'aime that no one wanted. If you can imagine a third-rate homage of not just a Jean-Luc Godard film, but – worse than that – the “essence" of a Jean-Luc Godard film, then this is the film for you. I’d have been left comatose by director Michael Polish’s unbearable pastiche had I not been constantly wriggling in my seat desperate for it to end. Lovers in bed. Lovers on a beach. Lovers on mopeds. It was excruciating: one draining scene of internalised longing and woe after another. It’s love story as art-directed hipness: for posers only - so, like most scent ads with a passing knowledge of the French New Wave, then. However, recast it with zombies...

02. The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips)

Things randomly happening in crass, haphazard succession. Repeat until fade. More of the same, exactly the same, as the first part but only occurring in a slightly shuffled sequence. It’s a money maker. A quality-proof hit-creating concept s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out into a tediously bilious infinity. I’m now fully done with Bradley Cooper & pals’ tiresome escapades after two joyless jaunts. It’s the kind of film which proudly bellows that it doesn’t care about what it promotes or says because it truly believes that it belongs in a state of post-ironic universal acceptance of all things, however questionable. (Men can do what they want anytime, all the time; transsexuals are to be laughed at anytime, all the time, and so on.) That’s just the beginning of what’s so wrong about these godawful films. And another thing: it simply wasn't funny.

03. Your Highness (David Gordon Green)

This and Bad Teacher both made me laugh once. Not each; they shared just the one laugh between them. Although, I’m not sure, it could’ve been a hiccup. Or a long, drawn-out boredom sigh. Natalie Portman proved that Black Swan may very well have been a brilliant fluke; James Franco bizarrely replicated his Pineapple Express persona... but in chainmail, and without the charm; Danny McBride came off least inept, but he misfired eight jokes in every ten. (I loved "No! Not triangle face," however.) David Gordon Green showed refreshing comic chops and did a cheeky about-turn with Pineapple, but now he’s just exposing to us to his rotten comedy cavities. He’s laughing at us, not with us, surely?

04. Fair Game (Doug Liman)

Most Deathly Boring Movie of 2011 goes to... this Sean Penn/Naomi Watts dud. In it, someone, maybe several people, talked about tubes a lot, if I recall correctly. Someone stole some tubes? Someone ate a 'yellow cake'? Naomi Watts definitely said, “I have a critical operation in Baghdad... my contact’s packed and ready to go!” as if her hair straighteners depended on it. And then: “something something covert agent... something something tubes something breaking point... something gimme some of that yellow cake filled with uranium.” Or something. I spent most the time wishing Brooke Smith had been given the lead role instead of one superfluous scene and watching extras mill about as if they had any purpose. Real-life dramas have never felt as inert or as innocuous as they did here.

05. Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)

Hereafter: Matt and Bryce were contemplating chopping some tomatoes. Again.

Clint’s feel-bad tsunami deathfest, Hereafter, a human drama with a supernatural leaning, is out to prove that, yes, he can make a worse film than Gran Torino. It's uninspired filmmaking: lazy, largely pointless and ultimately lacking in any clear meaning. At one point Damon joins a cooking class which solely consists of lengthy bouts of slicing tomatoes with Bryce Dallas Howard. The acting was fair (Damon) to ropey (the McLarens twins), its unceasingly dour pace was a dull, myopic trudge and its take on all things supernatural was both unoriginal (blurry spectral figures, pallid faces everywhere) and selective (all British mediums are hacks; American ones are genuine). Everybody spoke with plaintive reverence as if God was listening and cared what they had to say. But, on a brighter note, it was the only film ever to end on a meet-cute outside an Oddbins. So there's that.

06. Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks)

Do well regarded actors always make good directors? I’m guessing some look maybe look toward, say, Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood before they arrive at Hanks. Although I care for neither of the above pair’s behind-the-camera escapades (see #5 above), at least their directorial efforts have a sustained impact, personality. Any jobbing director-for-hire could’ve directed That Thing You Do! or Larry Crowne. When I think of Hanks’ persona, his comic persona, it doesn’t translate to what we have here. Roberts lazily smugs it up as someone we’re meant to find caustically, endearingly amusing, but who is actually unbearable (an actress of Michelle Pfeiffer's top-dollar calibre could've made this role sing); Hanks pratfalls to little use; the support cast zone out. And, ultimately, so did I. Watch Everything Must Go instead. It’s a much better treatment of this idea.

07. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - or Dusk in London, if you want to be glum about it, and I evidently do - was entirely dire. This is coming from someone who generally loves Woody Allen. When well-loved actors (Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin etc) appear to find it hard to articulate their thoughts convincingly, warning lights flash; when they aren’t able to comfortably arrange their own bodies within a film frame, warning beacons flare up. Very little was amusing, let alone actually, technically funny and the plot was a haphazard slog; the construction of each scene – framing, blocking, art direction etc – was too fudged to register as believable. It's a real catastrophe when capable actors flail even when they’re just meant to be opening their gobs and picking up bar snacks. I’m not certain Woody was actually watching what was happening. It’s one of his biggest misfires.

08. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)

Heartbeats: three hipsters contemplate their navels. In turn and at length.

I surprised myself by watching another film directed by Xavier Dolan after feeling infuriated by the achingly hip and irritating I Killed My Mother last year. But in the hope that a follow-up might unearth something fresh I gave his second directorial outing a fair pop. I’m not sure which film I disliked more. I find it hard to care about the kind of self-regarding, smug people that populate both films. They were artfully dejected types who bored me senseless, with their transparent woes on lust, love and what was happening only directly at the within their privileged spheres. Dolan’s overly showy directorial tics could be explained by his neophyte position, perhaps, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he throws everything into the frame because anything less would reveal his bare-boned talents as all too empty. Heartbeats contains some of my least liked types of filmmaking: affected, whiny and ponderous.

09. My Soul to Take (Wes Craven)

Or: Wes Craven's Snoozeround. Both Craven and John Carpenter – two bearded titans of the most fondly recalled horror of the past three decades – made returns, of a certain type, to horror-genre filmmaking this year. Carpenter let us onto The Ward; Craven added Scream 4 to complete(?) his success-decreasing series. He supplemented it with My Soul to Take; and I wish he hadn’t. After the opening titles and a bare introduction to what's likely going to happen over the next 90 minutes, it peters out into A Nightmare on Elm Street the junior edition. Something I never thought anyone wanted, needed or even actually ever contemplated. Soul was a sure sign that Craven is, yikes, way beyond his 'best before' date.

10. Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisener)

I didn’t quite understand why people started to think of films like this and, say, Machete as genuine throwbacks to Grindhouse filmmaking; or, more bafflingly, when they were labelled as genuine (albeit contemporary takes on) Grindhouse films. It felt odd. In fact, the films talked about seemed like weak parody more than definite new entries. Especially Hobo, a pastiche of flaky style and misjudged proportions. But I guess if you shoehorn Rutger Hauer into the lead and make him aptly desperate and dishevelled (ditto the grimy sheen of the filmmaking), some folks will buy it. It’s all affect; it’s all appearance. It looks like old 35mm film fucked to the point of abandon, or VHS fuzzed until forever. So therefore it’s authentic enough? I’d rather see the actual films made during the “mucky” period of the late ‘70s-early ‘80s (The Exterminator, Savage Streets, Maniac etc) to see what it was genuinely all about, rather than see a feeble fan-made imprint.

Ten more (in no order): 

The King’s Speech
Bad Teacher
Horrible Bosses
Ward No. 6
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
I Spit on Your Grave

22 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Cinematography, Music, Male & Female Cameos/Small Roles

Until the Worst films, Best films and Female and Male Performances posts, here are four brief Tens for cinematography, music and best male and female cameos/small roles. As I was making my acting top tens recently, I noticed a a lot more smaller performances - slightly more substantial than your normal cameo appearance, but not necessarily solid enough supporting roles - that I enjoyed this year. (In some cases the actors' contributions made the film for me.) I wanted to, in some small way, acknowledge that I enjoyed the performances on the peripheries of some films. Also, I selected music and cinematography contributions of all the technical/crew achievements as there were many exemplary examples of these filmmaking attributes during the past year.

Best Cinematography (in alphabetical film title order):

Black Swan Matthew Libatique
Drive Newton Thomas Sigel
How I Ended This Summer Pavel Kostomarov

Julia’s Eyes Óscar Faura
Melancholia Manuel Alberto Claro
Midnight in Paris Darius Khondji
Snowtown Adam Arkapaw
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Hoyte Van Hoytema

The Tree of Life Emmanuel Lubezki
True Grit Roger Deakins

Best Music (in alphabetical film title order):

Another Earth Fall on Your Sword
Black Swan Clint Mansell

Brighton Rock Martin Phipps
Cold Weather Keegan DeWitt
Drive Cliff Martinez
Last Night Clint Mansell
Rubber Gaspard Augé/Sébastien Akchoté/Quentin Dupieux
The Skin I Live In Alberto Iglesias

Snowtown Jed Kurzel
Stone Jonny Greenwood/Jon Brion

Male Acting: cameo/small role (in no order):

left-right: David, Stoll, Lee

Christopher Lee The Resident
Colin Farrell Horrible Bosses
William H. Macy The Lincoln Lawyer
James Franco The Green Hornet
Adrien Brody Midnight in Paris
Andy Serkis Brighton Rock
Corey Stoll Midnight in Paris
Jon Hamm Bridesmaids
Keith David Meet Monica Velour
Hugo Weaving Captain America: The First Avenger

Female Acting: cameo/small role (in no order):

left-right: Mendes, Dern, McGillis

Minnie Driver Conviction
Christina Hendricks Drive
Jennifer Ehle Contagion
Lin Shaye Insidious
Kelly McGillis Stake Land
Eva Mendes Last Night
Frances Conroy Stone
Alison Pill Midnight in Paris
Laura Dern Everything Must Go
Charlotte Rampling Melancholia

Next: Worst films, Top Ten Male & Female Acting and Best Films of the Year.

19 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Surprises

Yesterday I posted up my 2011 Disappointments and today we have The 2011 Surprises of the Year. With this list (here's last year's for extra perusal) I mostly wanted to highlight several titles (15 in total) that I caught throughout the year and that I didn't know much about or were oddly taken with – and as a result surprised me. I thought they deserved a touch more praise than what they may well have got (to my knowledge anyhow) and . This is by no means a list of alternative or secondary best films – I have a top 30 to come – but it can often be good practice to single out the nearly-couldas or the bypassed contenders and give them a helpful shove under the spotlight. These ten films are in no order, they're merely listed randomly:

Mr. Nobody (Jaco van Dormael)

What I enjoyed about Mr. Nobody was what unfortunately, in the end, relegated it to this list instead of seeing it sit pretty on another (30-11): its gleefully harebrained slipperiness. It wants to be a romance, a drama, a sci-fi and everything in between. And it partially succeeds. But after it breaches its second hour (with 30mins still left to play out and nowhere left to go but back in on itself for a third, then fourth, time), it loses much momentum. But still, it’s a thoughtfully individual film; one which looked – and was edited – like little else last year. It engaged in arousing universal themes that some films indulgently fudged (I’m looking at you, The Fountain). If it knew when to call it a day Mr. Nobody could’ve been near sublime. Instead, it was The Truman Show starring Jared Leto in old man makeup, remade by Richard Kelly on laughing gas. Director van Dormael does have some serious style under his belt and I’d willingly submit to more sci-fis from him. However, the biggest drawback outside of the unwieldy running time, I'm sad to say, is a grade-A awful performance from Sarah Polley.

The Reef (Andrew Traucki)

The Reef is essentially just another spin on the stranded-desperate-at-sea (not really a) sub-genre. (See: Open Water etc.) But it works minor wonders by making it feel justly exciting and more than adequately perilous – especially for any selachophobia sufferers out there. A party of however many future shark-attack victims, deserted at sea after their boat snags its underside on a rock, make a slap dash for dry land; risking becoming Great White fodder along the way. It’s all par for the course, but the performances, shark wrangling (real, specially-shot shark footage was used) and nicely maintained tone set it apart. Director Andrew Traucki does a fine job – as good as the one he did for 2007 giant crocodile movie Black Water, showing he’s crucially adept at Dangerous Animal Cinema.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark)

Ridiculously vertiginous towers. Boat rides through mystical caves. Gravity-pooh-poohing fights and swordplay. Deer that morph into human form... only to indulge in gravity-pooh-poohing fights and swordplay. Costumes that would shock and dropkick Lady Gaga’s jaw wide open. Direction with plenty of speed, swoop and gusto. Detective Dee had oodles going for it. It didn’t always successfully play the content off the stunning visuals, but when it worked it was giddily gobsmacking entertainment. Some of the script felt oddly fudged in places and the tone was – sometimes awkwardly, other times charmingly – off kilter, but there aren’t too many barmy adventures like this during most film years. I was mainly enthralled by its sheer devil-may-care inventiveness. It was a CGI world far more evocative than that of Tintin and the like, too.

Puncture (Mark Kassen/Adam Kassen)

Puncture, like Conviction, The Fighter and The Resident, is ostensibly a TV movie dressed in its best theatrical suit. However, unlike those films, it didn’t receive a theatrical release. (Also, see Stone below.) It was bypassed and arrived straight to TV in the UK. This was a huge shame as, although it has an admittedly telly-friendly veneer, let’s say, and a rather tried and tested plot, it was a better film than all three above titles. Chris Evans gave a boldly committed performance as a real-life lawyer, it was handsomely shot and it very rarely squandered a moment of its running time; it was slick and never wasteful. Its essential decency, its social and politically astute mindset, (it’s about a drug-addicted lawyer sticking his neck on the line to save the lives of needle users whoever they might be) stands out as admirable. Come the end, it was all rather moving, too. Really, it’s a man Silkwood. And having one of those in the world doesn't hurt.

Quarantine 2: Terminal (John Pogue)

The things I liked about this very likely fast-tracked and certainly ramshackle follow-on from [Rec] remake Quarantine were almost periphery to everything that occurred directly as a result of its narrative. The incidental exchanges, events and geographical isolation - what might occur in the background - all made an unusually vivid impression. This time a gaggle of disparate characters are isolated within a hastily-landed plane and the adjoining airport terminal baggage area. That’s pretty much the sole setting for 90 minutes. But the filmmakers manage to make an involving enough horror-drama out of a very messy situation (and out of the straggled plot ends of the US remake). It’s pure relegated-to-the-late-spot Horror Channel fare, but not as easily dismissible as may be first apparent. It has a modicum more tension and invention than many cheap horror sequels - and there are numerous titles to choose from. It’s bags of fun and maintains its pace well. And it has some genuinely interesting scare tactics, along with some bizarrely harsh character deaths, to revel in over its snappy running time. It shows that inexpensive, workaday horror can sometimes surprise us if a few ideas or scenario changes are considered from time to time.

Everything Must Go (Dan Rush)

I went into Everything Must Go with some scepticism, as I did a previous Raymond Carver adaptation, Jindabyne. I don’t think either film quite captures the tone of his writing in the same way that Robert Altman managed with benchmark carver adaptation Short Cuts, but both manage joint-second best well enough. (Although whereas Altman adapted multiple short stories and interwove them seamlessly, director Rush takes the essence of one short – ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ from his 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – and stretches it out to involve more characters and situations.) Rush, with Will Ferrell as the alcohol-dependent and recently fired husband who makes a sad yet celebratory party out of a lawn full of personal belongings, manages to retain some of the listless, melancholic timbre of Carver’s story whilst also opening it out somewhat. Good work from Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Michael Peña and, in a brief and beautifully judged cameo, Laura Dern make this unassuming film really rather affecting; it’s often very moving in a plainly sincere fashion. It made similarly-plotted (man loses everything, learns to claw it back with the help of female companionship and close friends) yet infinitely feeble Tom Hanks effort Larry Crowne look like the insipid mess that it was. Oh, if release tactics could be swapped...

Stone (John Curran)

Apart from it being the best thing that Robert DeNiro has appeared in for at least fifteen years, Stone was a moody, pressurised and emotionally hefty four hander, made with some class and plenty of skill. It was largely overlooked and went direct to DVD/Blu-ray here in the UK. The four actors entwined in the plot – which broadly concerns the social and religious aspects of trust and duplicity surrounding an about-to-be-released murderer – play incredibly confidently off one another: DeNiro shows, indeed intently proves, why some still regard him so highly; Edward Norton has never been better; Milla Jovovich gives a career-best turn; and Frances Conroy broke my heart just a little bit. It’s about people and how they can be truly revealed through their words; it places deliberation and the crucial impact of conversation as paramount to the understanding of other people's lives. It’s vigorously intense stuff, sure, but never high-toned or stuffy. The music (a brilliant aural soundscape put together piecemeal by Jon Brion and Johnny Greenwood), cinematography (by the excellent Maryse Alberti) and editing (Alexandre de Franceschi, who did the photography for Bright Star) are all top dollar. The film is composed of across-the-board classy craftsmanship. It’s a shame that it never got the chance to reach a wider audience. Its director John Curran is currently one of the most interesting directors who hasn’t yet snagged a decent break. He makes adult-orientated dramas that are neither old-fashioned nor overly convoluted in the face of an increasingly infantilised Hollywood arena. Maybe he’s just behind or, perhaps, hopefully, just ahead of the curve. But you tell me why Little Fockers got a full release and Stone didn’t.

Henry's Crime (Malcolm Venville)

As with Stone, Henry’s Crime didn’t win much acclaim and was mostly sidelined in favour of bigger, more obvious thrills. But at least it had a theatrical shot in the UK. It’s not a unique concept for a film by any stretch, but it was amiable and perfectly leisurely paced (for a crime/heist film), and not without an element of eccentric charm to it. Keanu Reeves quietly slums it as a blue collar worker all too accepting of his unwitting part in a bank job; in prison he meets real crook James Caan and, when he’s out, figures he should rob the bank for real. Vera Farmiga is excellent in support as a local actress (flagging, with a few small diva-like flourishes, through a local, smallscale production of The Cherry Orchard) that Reeves romances. It’s very slight (its rather unsatisfactory ending knocks it down a peg or two), but was an agreeable watch. It perhaps might give the Coens a run for their money on an off day, if you know what I mean.

Agnosia (Eugeno Mira)

I enjoyed the time I spent watching Agnosia, even when, halfway through, it didn’t entirely manage to recapture or maintain the intriguing and mysterious promise of its early scenes and began seriously dragging somewhat. There were myriad convolutions snaked throughout the plot, and an inconsistent tone overall, but it was a constant visual joy to watch. The inky imagery, as sour and pummelled by time as a month-old aubergine, was the crowning achievement in Eugenio Mira’s box of filmic tricks, and it deserves the highest praise. Some partially superficial similarities to a couple of other 2011 horror releases – Amer and Julia’s Eyes – unfortunately come to mind, but it manages to be acres better than the former, whilst being nowhere near as good as the latter. A tonal tweak here and a plot shift there, and Agnosia could’ve been an absolute gem.

How Do You Know (James L. Brooks)

How do I know that How Do You Know is one of the year’s most casually pleasant surprises? I don’t, really. But neither do many others either, I gather. Hardly anyone saw, or at least commented on in any wide capacity, James L. Brooks’ latest comedy-drama. Those that did speak up didn’t mention how strangely becoming it was, how familiarly, weirdly nice its awkward embrace. Sure, much of the structure and some of the character interaction are skewed to the point of oddball abstraction (it’s hard to get any purchase on the way it shunts itself between people and situations at times), but it works well enough by positioning itself just to the side of the rom-com norm. It’s ever-so-slightly (and charmingly?) outmoded in its approach to matters of the daft heart and bizarre business. Paul Rudd was great (especially when he gets frustrated with a barbequed steak in a moment of inspired comical despair) and Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson were better here than they have been in anything else in the last few years. It’s maybe my favourite Brooks film. Maybe.

Five more half-decent surprises: Red Hill, Elektra Luxx, Drive Angry, The Next Three Days, The Awakening.

Next: some selected technical/crew bests, and it's him 'n' her time with the male and female acting. Then: worst films and films 30-11 followed by the Top Ten.

18 December 2011

Films of the Year 2011: Disappointments

In the same way that I came up with a list of ten disappointments last year, here, kicking off my year-end list shenanigans, are the ten for 2011. These films are again those which, prior to seeing them, I was fairly certain might just grab my attention much more thoroughly, creatively and surely than they ultimately actually did. Expectations were deflated quickly when the films didn't live up to their promise. In no way would I consider any of them as worthy of a place on the worst list (well, perhaps a couple...), but neither did I think they were particularly any good. However, as ever, a second watch one day might change my opinion. The films are in no qualitative order – certainly not biggest to least disappointing. They’re simply listed as and when I recalled them to write a few brief words on. Anyway, here they are:

The Silent House

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernández)

There was plenty of scary potential here, but it ended up being a dull rendition of other, better examples in the found-footage subgenre. It was an uninspired rehash of lone-woman-terrorised-in-a-house movies. The limp, uninvolving ending didn’t help matters either. I liked the old crumbling farmhouse of the story’s location, crammed as it was with the opportunity for the camera to get lost amid the shadowy corners and deserted hallways; it was isolated enough to arouse a feeling of mounting dread. But very little was made of these attributes beyond a rote exploration. I’d suggest watching both [Rec] films to get any satisfaction from this current crop of house-based horrors style movie that do the rounds year on year.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

This is what it seemed like: a top-drawer cast slumming it for an ounce of ‘just look how game we are’ multiplex credibility in genre fare that they wouldn’t normally touch with a big stick had inconsistent style merchant Steven Soderbergh not been in charge. People turned away in droves and reacted blankly when Fernando Meirelles did a similar thing with Blindness three years ago, which was by far a better film. Apart from some very well shot abandoned street scenes and Jennifer Ehle this was plain and forgettable stuff. However, I am looking forward to Soderbergh’s other deep genre experiment, Haywire, next year.

My Dog Tulip (Paul Fierlinger/Sandra Fierlinger)

I had this pegged as a possible contender for a more positive list this year, but it wasn’t to be. The promise of charm, likeability and a tender human-dog relationship was enticing, but I found these attributes in limited supply. There were cries of how low-fi and wonderful the animation was, but I found it clunky and ineffective, sadly. (And, no, I don’t require everything to be CGI-augmented.) The central relationship wasn’t up to much, either. I really wished it was just generally, well, better than it was. To avoid any overt cutesiness I figured the filmmakers went too far the other way with their matter-of-fact approach. But I’m not one for any kind of sickly sentiment, so my disappointment came as a surprise.

The Love We Make

The Love We Make (Bradley Kaplan/Albert Maysles)

Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of lasting merit in this Albert Maysles (directing with Bradley Kaplan) documentary on Paul McCartney’s endeavours to stage a gig in New York. I didn’t really feel anything of the on screen inspiration that seemed to be in abundance throughout or gain a lot of insight from the – gulp – rather pedestrian reportage on display. The idea of spirited documentation has never seemed so passionless. I hate to say it, as Maysles is partly responsible for a great many of my favourite documentaries ever made (Grey Gardens, Salesman among them), but did he temporarily misplace his oomph here? Ditch the Beatles fascination and rediscover your mojo, Mr. Maysles.

Amer (Hélène Cattet/Bruno Forzani)

I really wanted to like Amer, but the arch, self-satisfied manner in which directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani played their exercise in parodic theatrics put paid to this. An all-round pity then, more than a reason to include it as one of the year’s worst. It’s a gimmick movie without much in the way of any decent horror tropes or scares: how do you feel scared when the film seems to be winking at you in every frame? Borrowed music (Stelvio Cipriani’s score for 1977’s Tentacoli) drenches borrowed style; it’s so pastiche that it lost any sense of individual identity from the first frame. Give me a proper Giallo any day of the week.

I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon)

A majorly unsatisfying and overvalued film from Kim Ji-woon. Everything is so archly contrived to be effectively, shockingly cool and showy that the frequent blood-soaked imagery ceases to have any kind of visceral impact after a spell. Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-sik, both good actors, are one-note as moody cop and mad serial killer; neither successfully shapes their roles into sustainable characters. Any number of lesser actors can pose and look intense on screen; richly embodying stark fear and intensity is a harder task. Such a potentially complex and fascinating idea requires something far more evocative. It’s all been done better elsewhere. Everyone involved should watch Vengeance Is Mine and/or Oldboy to see how it's done properly.

Passenger Side (Michael Bissonette)

The ironically played out buddy-movie template didn’t offer up much to get happy about with this tepid, flat road movie. If it hadn't featured a near-intolerable pair of guys bitterly and tediously talking up a lot of dull nothing for most of its duration I may have been keener to engage with it. But maybe it's just not for me at all; perhaps I'm way out of its target demographic. It maybe didn't help that I saw Easier with Practice - another low-budget US road-trip movie, one which has one or two narrative elements in common with Passenger Side - just a few days earlier. The questionable attitude toward women (and, in particular, transgender characters) sat uncomfortably with me. A forgettable misfire – I don’t understand its modest acclaim.

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman)

Marines facing off with ill-tempered and miserable looking aliens in a ravaged L.A., in a style reminiscent of the best fraught, raggedly-filmed war movies? Nice idea, guys, but why didn’t you go beyond that premise and actually deliver something which used the best attributes of both war and sci-fi genres? I didn't think the film was all-out terrible, as many others did, but it came very close - but was in the end merely all too unmemorable. Aaron Eckhart in a helmet shouting a lot and some dusty, grimy imagery thanks to countless incoherent explosions are what I was left with. Aaron and co., I grade you: Must Try Harder.

Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)

I had high hopes, what with all the praise heaped on to Michelangelo Frammartino’s film. But despite some immaculately controlled, intrepid filmmaking (and nice use of sound), I was overall left baffled by its reputation. The cyclical theme felt clunky, the mood too precious. I prefer my allegorical treatments on the cycle of life and the inevitability of death to strive less yearningly for the poetic, and to instead attempt to arouse the poetic in the quotidian. Or, to put it another way, give me György Pálfi’s Hukkle (which similarly transferred its plot baton from human to animal and also featured an elderly farmer with health issues) or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, a film about farms, animals and the process and cycle of life and work. Le quattro volte's aims are ultimately different from both of those, but together they said more to me about many of the same themes.

Cowboys & Aliens (Jon Favreau)

The writers/studio heads did well with their punning, dunderheaded and easy-please title (it's in the vein of Snakes on a Plane, Maid in Manhattan etc) as it was guaranteed to get their film noticed. Well done them, then, for getting bums on seats with zero effort. But what is this film other than the playing out in expensive, unsatisfying images of the promise of that title? Daniel Craig was meandering whilst waiting in the Bond 23 (now Skyfall) queue; Harrison Ford, doing another of his best grump-faced turns, was a blank; the adventure was stunted. It’s all superfluous padding for a film title that really isn’t actually that clever. Those of us who fell for it replied in kind with our best bored faces.

Five more that disappointed: How I Ended This Summer, Biutiful, The Resident, Submarine, The Pack.

Next: Never despair, folks! The film surprises of the year are on the way. Then: some selected technical/crew bests, male and female acting, worst films and the top 30 best films.

24 November 2011

At the Cinema: Whores' Glory

Whores' Glory (Michael Glawogger/2011) Germany, Austria/110mins. ***

Whores’ Glory, the latest film from acclaimed Austrian documentary auteur Michael Glawogger, features three equally lengthy sections (about 35 minutes each) filmed in three different sex houses in three countries: the Fish Tank in Thailand, the City of Joy in Bangladesh and The Zone in Mexico. His camera follows a variety of women in each location as they navigate their lives impacted upon by religious duty and the men paying for the privilege of their time – whether in high-end and well-organised establishments or ‘quick-fuck’ back-street sex rooms. The locations are visited in turn and with a fluid matter-of-factness; comment on a variety of ‘issues’ relating to the women’s situations is implied through Glawogger’s inquiring filming style. The reasons for the women doing what they do and the matters surrounding them - the need to provide for their families, the pull between sex work and religious beliefs and the issue of ease with which these women can be sold (especially pertinent in the Bangladesh segment) - are presented as all of equal concern to Glawogger. Answers aren’t provided, but nor are they particularly sought after in the first place. Glawogger simply, and respectfully, observes from a bystander’s position and creates curious, free-associating and minutely functioning dramas out of the ladies’ and their clients’ everyday needs.

The soundtrack, mostly comprised of grit-friendly songs (but all very good selections), by the likes of CocoRosie (Beautiful Boyz, Miracle and Honey or Tar – the first included because it contains the words ‘whore’ and ‘glory’?) and three by PJ Harvey (Dear Darkness, Snake and The Whores Hustle and the Hustler’s Whore – the last included because it mentions the words ‘whores’?), make for thoughtfully apt, yet somewhat obvious and down-at-heel, stop-gaps peppered throughout the ‘narratives’. The final section in Mexico is the most rewarding, the most full of life and unguarded emotion. The women in The Zone in Reynosa, Mexico speak personally and at length – and far more frankly, and openly, than in the first two sections. These women are the film’s best talkers. They display a jubilantly bolshy and very prosaic attitude to their situations, yet not at the expense of any hidden pain or drama their lives may have seen. There’s, ultimately, perhaps a whole feature-length film to be made about any one place, or indeed any one person, here. Glawogger’s triptych structure is heavy on comparative reflection, but it all too rarely gets down to the real business of examining even one woman’s life in a refreshing, investigative and all-encompassing way – something which would’ve made a resounding world of difference to the outcome of the film. Life is hazily penned in by the necessity of artistic endeavour. That wasn’t something that affected Beeban Kidron’s 1993 TV documentary Hookers Hustlers Pimps and Their Johns, which I was reminded of on a few occasions during the film.